Satellite technology is more accessible and affordable than ever, and while that does have some downsides, it has opened up all kinds of new applications. Among them is Carbon Tracker’s idea of using satellite imagery to monitor coal power plants. Countries and energy companies may or may not provide reliable information about coal use, but as the title of the report makes clear, tracking it from orbit gives them nowhere to hide.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated process, Carbon Tracker‘s analysts have developed a system that captures imagery from a global network of monitoring satellites. Coal power stations are mapped, and matched with their particular cooling technologies to see if there is a telltale ‘plume’ of steam coming from them. A computer filters out any images that are too cloudy to tell, and then makes a judgement on whether the power station is operating. Is it on or off? It’s a machine learning process that the team have been refining for a year now, and it currently logs coal power use with just over 90% accuracy.
This usage data can then be combined with coal prices, the cost of air pollution regulations and carbon pricing, and you can tell from space whether a coal power plant is profitable. If you find it isn’t, you can warn investors, who are Carbon Tracker’s primary audience.
To illustrate how this could be used, the report focuses on China. Here is a country with extensive coal assets and what Carbon Tracker diplomatically describes as “persistently high degrees of data uncertainty in reported statistics.” That’s not insinuating any dishonesty, it’s more that China is a big country with lots of provinces that are responsible for their own statistics, and some of them are doing a better job than others. China’s government isn’t very good at sharing information either, and so satellite monitoring gives us a way of double-checking.
Here’s the headline news from China: 40% of China’s coal power plants are losing money.
That will rise to 95% of them by 2040. We already know that China has to shutter its coal power stations if we to prevent the breakdown of the climate. But there’s a massive financial incentive too. Closing them early will save tens of billions of dollars.
I’ve described elsewhere how renewable energy displaces coal and makes it unprofitable. In summary, since sunshine and wind are free, renewable energy will always be cheaper than coal at the point of generation. Coal power plants will sit idle whenever renewable energy is available to the grid. The more renewable energy is installed, the more downtime there is at coal plants, until it’s no longer worth keeping them open.
This isn’t just a Chinese problem. For all the waving of ‘Trump digs coal’ placards, coal plants are closing at a faster rate under Trump than Obama. The business case is broken. The age of coal is over, and the sooner it shuffles out of the energy mix altogether, the better.